Knebel, Melancon Find New Late-Inning Roles

As last week’s free agent frenzy entered its final day in anticipation of a lockout by the owners, a pair of clubs entered the fray by filling clear needs for late-inning relievers.

Beginning with the move that is far more likely to impact the standings in 2022, the Philadelphia Phillies signed right-hander Corey Knebel to a one-year, $10 million deal. Knebel will seemingly replace the recently departed Héctor Neris as the club’s closer, but that makes quite an assumption about Knebel’s availability for a full 162-game schedule.

Knebel’s ability to close has never been in question, at least based on his pure stuff. In 2017, he had one of the most un-hittable seasons out of the ‘pen in recent memory, striking out 126 over 76 innings while allowing just 48 hits en route to 39 saves, a 1.78 ERA and a 2.53 FIP for the Milwaukee Brewers. He saw a minor decline in 2018 as he struggled with knee and hamstring issues, and just hasn’t really pitched that much since. Between Tommy John surgery in 2019 and an extended issue with a lat injury in ’21, Knebel has pitched just 39 innings over 42 games in the last three seasons combined, with mixed results: he fared poorly in 13.1 innings with Milwaukee in 2020, but when he was on the mound for the Dodgers last season, the results were good, posting a 2.45 ERA and a 2.90 FIP.

The healthy version of Knebel isn’t a complicated pitcher to evaluate. It’s a two-pitch mix, at about a 60/40 rate of fastballs to curveballs. His heater is 96-98 mph with vertical shape but not a ton of rising action, while his 78-82 mph breaker is surprisingly soft in terms of velocity, but features tremendous depth and a bit of two-plane bite, with spin rates consistency exceeding 2,800 rpm. When he’s on, both pitches perform exceptionally well, and hard contact is very rare.

Precision has never really been a part of Knebel’s game, but in 2021, he put up his lowest walk rate since his rookie year. It’s an uncomfortable looking delivery that is very arm heavy and doesn’t always sync up well, leading to varying release points and little ability to locate. If anything, it feels like he’s just aiming for the middle of the strike zone and hoping for the best, but with the quality of his stuff, that’s a strategy he can get away with more often than not.

Knebel hasn’t been able to post up for a full season since that remarkable 2017 campaign, so the eight-figure risk being laid out by the Phillies is meaningful, but if he’s available for the majority of the year, he gives the club the kind of dominating, late-inning force it’s been lacking.

While he’s nowhere near the overwhelming force Knebel can be at times, Mark Melancon led the National League with 39 saves in 2021, and was on pace for 50 prior to the Padres’ second-half collapse. But in an industry that focuses on power stuff when it comes to getting high-leverage outs, Melancon, who will turn 37 next March, had to settle for a two-year pact with the Arizona Diamondbacks for a guaranteed $14 million. He’ll earn $6 million in each of those two seasons; the deal also includes a $2 million buyout prior to 2024 as part of a mutual option (one thing to know about mutual options is that they are pretty much never actually mutually exercised).

Now it’s time for a quick quiz: Who led the Arizona Diamondbacks in saves during the 2021 season? I’m not going to lie, I had to look it up myself, and the answer revealed some shocking facts. Shocking fact number one: As a team, Arizona only amassed 22 saves, split amongst eight players. Shocking fact number two: No Diamondbacks pitcher had more than six saves, with Joakim Soria and Tyler Clippard ultimately tying for the team “lead.”

Obviously, Arizona wanted to get a consistent late-inning reliever, not that a team coming off a 110-loss season likely anticipates having a bunch of save opportunities to hand out in the first place. But one has to wonder if Melancon had offers for less money in less highly-leveraged roles with other teams, and money or role or geography (Melancon is a University of Arizona alum) or some combination of those factors played a role in his final decision.

As for the pitcher himself, Melancon is still an effective bullpen contributor, but Father Time is starting to catch up to him in a couple of areas. The approach remains the same as it ever was. It’s a highly vertical attack, with roughly two-thirds low-90s cutters and one-third low 80s curveballs. He works north-to-south with that pair of offerings, and while he’s maintained his velocity into his late 30s, his ability to command his stuff has started to wain a bit. The 2021 season represented his highest walk rate since 2009, and his barrel rate was up significantly. That combination shows a disturbing trend of both missing within the zone and missing the zone entirely more than ever.

Melancon is more a proven commodity in the late innings than an archetypical late-inning reliever with power stuff, and he’s probably fallen into the range where he’s not quite a championship-level closer, but he’s certainly good enough to do the job for Arizona. Whether or not he remains there for the duration of his contract is still very much to be determined.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

Melancon isn’t flashy but he’s solid. Career 2.79 ERA. He throws strikes and keeps the ball in the ballpark. His velo has remained pretty steady the past few seasons. Arizona’s bullpen was awful, so a competent reliever will be a welcome addition. He can also help out the grounds crew if the need arises.